Dolphins at Cosa and Signia

HN Italy 210. First Cosan bronze issue. Image from Buttrey’s classic 1980 publication, to which it links.

This issue of Cosa imitates Rome’s first didrachm (RRC 13/1).  It’s date post 273BC (the founding date of Cosa) has sometimes been used to try to draw down the date of Rome’s first didrachm, the idea being that iconographic borrow would be unlikely over a gap of some 40-50 years.  The gap doesn’t bother me.

I was just intrigued by the dolphin addition to the design. Buttery says its there “bronze to identify Cosa as a port” (p. 22).  Need this be true?  I’m just recalling the dolphin neck terminus we find on the obverse of the coins of Signia:

Latium, Signia. Obol circa 280-275, AR 0.69 g. Head of Mercury r., wearing petasus; below neck, dolphin r. and below chin, caduceus. Rev. Mask composed of Silenus head l., and boar’s head r.; below, SEIC. Sambon 164. SNG ANS 115. Campana CNAI 1a. Historia Numorum Italy 343.

Segni is most certainly not on the sea.  And as I mentioned in passing in another post, Mercury isn’t particularly associated with nautical imagery and dolphins.  I’m wondering it is not a design element considered aesthetically pleasing at the bottom of a protome to ease the transition. Two examples an argument does not make.  I’ll keep my eye out for more.

Left to Right, Right to Left

Bronze Coin, Frentani. ANS 1957.172.36. SNG ANS 1.129. HN Italy 621.

Check out the legends on each side of this coin.  They are both FRENTREI, but with the Rs looking for all the world like Ds and the F like an 8.  Oscan isn’t really that far off the Latin or Greek alphabet:

It’s main difference is that its written right to left (like Hebrew and Arabic), rather than left to right (like English and kin).  I like the above specimen because it has the same name written in different directions on each side.  L>R on the obverse; R>L on the reverse.  It’s as if we get a little window into the moment of evolution of the language among the Frentani.

It uses a locative ending like the first coin of Larinum to show a Roman influence.  The coins of Larinum during the Hannibalic War period continue to be of influence for the swap between Oscan and Latin and the D/R letter forms (see Rutter in HN Italy, no. 624).

post script.  Doesn’t the little beanie hat style of Mercury’s wings remind you a little of how they were rendered on Suessa’s bronzes… or at Teanum ?

294 out 410 days: Obverse Legend Variants on Mercury Type at Suessa

Historia Numorum Italy no. 448 is listed with just one legend PROBOM. (P is actually closer to a Π with a short right leg. Note open form of R. These features consistent throughout).  A specimen with clearly this legend is illustrated in the plates. Most of the specimens in trade are from different dies with variant readings:




The meaning of the legend is unclear.  HN Italy suggests it comes from probus, meaning valid.  Although the basic meaning ‘honest, good’ seems fine to me too.

It is connected to a similar legend at Beneventum on a type, the imagery of which is a mirror image of RRC 15/1 (HN Italy 440):

SAMNIUM, Beneventum . 265-240 BC. Æ 20mm (7.03 gm). BENVEN-TOD, laureate head of Apollo left / PR-O-P-OM, horse prancing right; pentagram above. SNG ANS -; BMC Italy pg. 68, 1; Sambon 193; SNG Morcom -; Laffaille -. Image from CNG.

The correct resolution of the legend may be aided by consideration of the variant spellings observed.

Beneventum became a Latin colony in 268 and Suessa in 313.  These coins are associated with the First Punic War.  Hercules wrestling the Nemean Lion is a common enough artistic theme, known especially at the mint of Heraclea Lucaniae and occasionally at Tarentum.

Addendum.  I wasn’t really happy with the probum meaning ‘approved’ as it seemed a strange thing to me to write on a coin.  Out of keeping with typical legends (ethnics, magistrates, mint marks, the very occasional labeling of the image).  I even tried to convince myself Probus could be an epithet or title for Mercury or something.  I didn’t manage.  Just a red herring.  But … then I remembered the inscriptions on the Egadi rams of a roughly contemporary date.

Egadi 1: C(aios) Sestio(s) P(ublii) f(ilios) / Q(uintos) Salonio(s) Q(uinti) [f(ilios)] / SEX VIROEN[-?–] / probave[re].


Egadi 4& 6 have identical texts: M(arcos) Populicio(s) L(ucii) f(ilios) / C(aios) Paperio(s) Ti(berii) f(ilios) / Q(uaestores) p(robavere)

We’ll known more once the inscriptions are published on there own, but for now the use of the probo, probare, probavi on the rams is enough to let me think probum on the coin is more plausible than I first thought.

[Disturbingly, if you google image search, ‘Beneventum Apollo Coin’, the first image that returns of the coin is hosted on some satanic-esque website obsessed with pentagrams.  Reminded me of a time a student of mine unwittingly submitted a project full of images from some awful white power website. Appropriation of the past to support modern ideologies is a dangerous thing, especially on the intertubes.]

292 out of 410 days: Signia

Kombination af to masker og et vildsvinehoved. Romersk ringsten
Combination of two masks and a wild boar’s head. Roman ringstone, 100-300 Cornelian. 1,1 x 1,6 cm. Inventory number: I1538. Thorvaldsens Museum.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m too obsessed with the connection between gems and coins.  And then one of my hunches pays off and the obsession comes back full swing.  In case the above image doesn’t set off exciting alarm bells in your head, allow me to remind you what the coins of Signia, a Latin Colony, during the Pyrrhic War looked like:


Latium, Signia. Obol circa 280-275, AR 0.64 g. Head of Mercury r., wearing petasus; below neck, dolphin r. Rev. Mask composed of Silenus head l., and boar’s head r.; below, SEIC. Campana CNAI 1b (this reverse die). BMC 3 (this reverse die). Historia Numorum Italy 343 var.

[I link to this particular specimen just so I can point out that it reappeared back on the market with a brand new patina, all nice and shiny and toned just one year later, and fetched a much higher price.  I think it looked just lovely before some one decided to ‘fix’ it.]

Let me assure you that the gem above is by no means a one off.

Beazley Archive Reference Number: 716; Description: Heads of a BOAR and a man conjoined. Inscribed in Greek THIE. Current Collection: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 42.1070; Previous Collections: Story-Maskelyne, M.H.: The Marlborough Gems (1870): no. 716. Material: Jasper

And based on descriptions without images the Thorvaldsens Museum has a number more similar gems, Inventory numbers: I1537,  I1539,  I1722, I1536.   The last two are of particular interest as they are glass pastes which suggests the image had resonance with members of a variety of different social classes.

This particular type even made the BBC!

Roman intaglio
From a 30 March 2010 article ‘Guernsey, the Roman Empire’s trading post’. Image links to article.

What the heck does it mean?  Was it the badge of some particular noble?  Or like grylloi is it a humorous, apotropaic emblem? Or a philosophic meditation on the theme of man and beast?  Or all these things?  or something else entirely?

OR! the penny drops!  Is it a visual pun?!  Signia in Latin is also the plural form of the neuter noun meaning: standard, seal, sign, signal, proof, indication from the verb signo to mark, stamp, designate, sign, seal.  The type chosen is a very very common seal type.  [This is why I blog by the way. It took writing the whole damn post for that penny to drop and me to make the obvious connection.]  This is a really exciting idea to me.  Name puns are all over Roman Republican coinage to show its early early adoption is Latium is especially good. I think it provides a missing link of sorts between the ideas I explored in this earlier post discussing Republican habits, the Abdera series, and Timeaus.  [I’ve talked about puns a lot on this blog, but that post is the best of the lot I think.]

For follow-up later: Henig has some clever things to say about gems usually.  There are two possibly related gems (CG72 and CG 354)  in the Fitzwilliam that he’s written up in his 1994 catalogue.  Must get those pages from ILL…  Strangely none returned in BM, Met, or Boston MFA searches all of which have robust gem collections.

As an aside, I find it funny that Mercury on the obverse is wearing a necklace or similar band.  At first I thought at first it might be an unfortunate die break, but it shows up on a different die as well, but not all of the dies.  Also what the heck does Mercury have to do with dolphins?  Could it have anything to do with bizarre composite deity on the coins of Bursio who has wings and a trident (RRC 352/1)?  I doubt it.  But finding any representation Hermes or Mercury with any nautical attributes is tricky.

Update 4/11/2014:  If more canting types from Italy are sought, consider Rutter’s note at HN Italy 446, an obol of  the Saunitai with a javelin head on the reverse, σαύνιον = javelin.  He gives a date of c. 325.

Update 7/12/2017:

Another example of this gem type from Gori:


cf. also this other Gori plate.


286 out of 410 days: Cocks, Victory and Virility

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right.
Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right. BM 1923,0401.420; Gem no. 2794

I was writing up my thoughts for the book on the symbolism of the cock on coinage during the First Punic War this morning.  [An issue touched upon in an earlier post, here.]  The idea that in the Greek world the cock need not be directly linked to Hermes, but more generally be a symbol of bellicosity and manliness, is well summarized by this book.




This might help explain the pairing of cock and Minerva (Athena) on coins of Suessa, Teanum, et al (for images see earlier post).  But I was still playing around with the Mercury association in my mind, when I came across the glass paste above.

Here we see the epitome of manhood, the victorious young athlete standing before a terminal Herm.  He has his prize crown and palm-frond and in thanksgiving for his victory he offers the god a cock. [Just like the victor in the Callimachus epigram quoted in the previous post!] The cock symbolizes at once his victory and his virility.  A Herm’s most notable feature was its phallus.  Although we are often think of Mercury (Hermes) as first the god of commerce, we must remember he ended up as such by his status as the fecund god, the wealth-bringer.   Just as cock is slang for male genitalia today, so in the ancient world the cock encapsulated a similar semantic range of meaning as the phallus: power, especially masculine power, the (pro)creative power that leads to wealth and to overcoming one’s adversaries.

Anyway, the glass paste is a ‘gem’ of a summation of the symbolism of the cock, so I thought I’d share. Okay, back to my other writing.

Post Script. 

When two cocks appears facing each other on gems it is most often a representation of a cock fight, thus a type of agonistic scene, often with victory imagery incorporated into the design:

Gem with two cocks and a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

Gem with two cocks one being crowned by victory.  [Arachne image database]

Gem with one cock on a rudder with a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

But also relevant are images where the are associated with martial symbolism:

Gem with military standards, cocks, and stars, flanking scorpion grasping a cresent.  [Arachne image database]

This is a good image showing the early association of the cock and Athena:

Vase in the Beazley Archive.

Other relevant bibliography:  Hoffmann 1974.

145 out of 410 days: Argos Panoptes?

Obverse of RRC 348/6. 2012.34.10

This as of L. Rubrius Dossenus (c. 87 BC) has, instead of the standard Janus, a janiform head combining Hercules and Mercury.  Alföldi connects this image, not to the palestra hermerakles imagery representing sound mind and sound body, but instead to a rather unusual vase image.  (See yesterday’s post for bibliographical citation).



The thing to notice is that the body of the figure is covered in eyes.  This is the standard means of depicting Argos Panoptes, the giant covered in uncountable eyes set to guard Io and killed by Hermes.  He is the mythological representation of the ever vigilant watcher.

A more recent monograph on the Polygnotos painter questions whether the standard identification of the figures (i.e. Hermes slaying Argos to free Io) on this most unusual vase are correct given how much it diverges from the standard representation:


Maybe this is not Hermes or Io, I grant their iconography isn’t typical, but Panoptes is surely intended on the vase given how his body is covered with eyes.  Perhaps we’re not seeing the right Argos Panoptes narrative here; the scholia on Euripides knew of other adventures in which he was a more positive protector, even if the vast majority of literary accounts are on Io.  There is even an early suggestion that Argos only had 4 eyes like a Janiform god:

Hesiod or Cercops of Miletus, Aegimius Frag 5 :
“And [Hera] set a watcher upon her [Io], great and strong Argos, who with four eyes looks every way. And the goddess stirred in him unwearying strength: sleep never fell upon his eyes; but he kept sure watch always.”

Is Alföldi’s suggestion plausible?  Maybe.  The vase certainly isn’t the standard representation but it is of Italic origin and we may be missing other key evidence.  That said, the vast majority of viewer would have been more familiar with the palestra imagery. Cf.  Cicero’s reference to wanting such a statue (ad Att. 1.10.3):


We imagine this would be something like this:

Double-Headed herm Bust

Or like this one in the Boston MFA Collection:

That it is the two individual deities combined in one image which is intended on the coin seems to me to be more likely, given that the inclusion of the attributes of both in the design.  This is not that visible on the specimen, but is noted by Crawford and can be seen on this coin of Andrew McCabe:


See how a club and caduceus jut out on either side below the chin and above the shoulder.

Why did Alföldi find the Argus explanation so attractive?  It allowed him to connect the coin to contemporary politics especially the vigilance of the Marians in anticipation of Sulla’s return.  (He dates the series to 86 BC.)

All that said it is also possible the Cicero/Palestra theory is a red herring.  Cicero might not have meant double herms but instead statues like this:

A little later aside (11/11/13): In that way that so often happens, I came across an odd coin with slightly similar imagery today.  Perhaps, I noticed it because I’d been looking at these janiform/bifrons heads yesterday.  I’m putting it up just so I have a note of it, should it ever prove relevant:

Another potential piece of comparative evidence (found 23/12/13):

Listed on Flickr as:

Janus-herm with addorsed head of Pan [or Zeus Ammon?] and Hercules, Marble, Roman, 1st c. CE; George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 51.2002.10; Springfield, Massachusetts,  Gift from the Estate of Dr. Melvin N. Blake and Dr. Frank Purnell

Update 30/1/2014: Discussing Janiform head could also lead to an investigation of this sort of object:

Terracotta aryballos (oil-bottle) in the form of two heads, one male, one female. An imitation of an East Greek type.

3/22/14 update: Compare the coinage of Volaterrae with the image of Argos on the vase painting above. Note in particular the hat and the club:

Etruria, Volaterrae, Dupondius circa 225-215, æ 259.55 g. Janiform head, wearing pointed cap. Rev. FELAQRI Club; on either side, mark of value II. H. pl. 83, 1. Syd. 305. TV 85. Ex CNG 29, The Thurlow collection, 1992, 69 and NAC 10, 1997, 287 sales.

Also of interest is the iconography of the Etruscan god, ‘Culsans’:



Note that the official museum catalogue website describes the headdress on this statue as a wild animal skin.